FCC chairman backs waiver to clear Tribune sale path

Martin proposes limited exemption

The head of the FCC wants to allow real estate mogul Sam Zell's attempt to take over Tribune, telling reporters Wednesday that he wants to waive a key rule.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin proposed giving Tribune a waiver of the rule that prevents one company from owning a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market.

If Martin's proposal is accepted, the media company's waiver will run out in two years, or six months after litigation over the issue ends.

Tribune asked for permanent waivers to the rule, but Martin said he wasn't willing to go along with that. The need for a permanent waiver would be obviated in all the markets where Tribune owns a TV station and a newspaper, excepting Hartford, Conn., under the chairman's proposal to generally ease the cross-ownership ban.

"That would give the commission an opportunity to consider new rules, and then Tribune could come into compliance with those rules," Martin said. "We should give people an opportunity to see how that all shakes out, and I would anticipate that would take quite some time."

Martin wants to make it easier for companies to own multiple media properties in the top 20 markets. The commission is scheduled to vote on that proposal Dec. 18.

Zell leads a group of investors who want to buy out the Chicago company for about $8.2 billion and then take it private. It owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Long Island's Newsday and several TV stations.

Tribune owns the Hartford Courant and several television stations near the Connecticut capital. It is the only market in question that falls outside of the top 20. Martin on Wednesday declined comment specifically on the Hartford situation.

The other four commissioners have three days to review Martin's proposal and decide whether they will approve it. Martin likely can depend on the votes of Republican commissioners Robert McDowell and Deborah Tate, who have indicated that they support loosening the cross-ownership ban, but it was unclear whether that translates to the Tribune deal.

Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein had accused Martin of holding Tribune "hostage" to "force a vote on media ownership before the end of the year." The two said they were prepared to vote on the Tribune waiver requests within three working days after Martin circulates a proposal.

The commissioners did not respond to requests for comment on Martin's proposal.

Tribune wants 20 business days for a marketing period. If the transaction wins approval by Friday, it could close by year's end.

Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons said that if Martin's plan is approved, it will allow the transaction to close by year's end. "This will allow Tribune's local media outlets to continue their commitment to outstanding journalism and service to our readers, viewers, listeners and advertisers," he said.